5 Tips for surviving Belfast

Belfast: more like bell-slow.

Belfast is a city full of things to do. Anyone working within the tourist infrastructure scoffs at any news mentions of Belfast as a dangerous place. Other locals are not afraid to greet you with a friendly "YOU DROPPED YOUR MAP YOU FRICKIN TOURIST!" the moment you get off the bus.

It is a calm city, in which you probably won't get yelled at in the street more than twice a day. Here are some helpful tips to make sure your visit is as pleasant as possible.

1. Don't insult the architecture, even if it is an atrocity of modernism meets neoclassical, all in one building. Belfast thrives on the clash of cultures from different sources coming together. This fine building is part of a college right by the botanical gardens.
Cubism, meet columns and a sculpture?
Ok, some of the college buildings are legit.
2. Take some time to appreciate the rainbows. They almost make up for the five times a day you will get rained on from the bipolar weather systems. Oh, and probably acquire yourself an umbrella, or you won't be able to tell the raindrops apart from your tears.
I think Ireland was on the other end of this rainbow.
3. Don't wear William and Mary gear. Well, you might get a high five in Protestant area. As you can see, orange day is a big thing, and William is so popular he gets a whole side of a building in the ultra-union-jack part of the city. You can take a black cab tour from all manner of Troubles veterans. You can request a bias so you can have the tour skewed perfectly to conform to your world view, or you can just take your chances. 
Anyway, don't wear William and Mary gear in the Catholic section, or you will get a high five to the face.
William! And Mary! Loved of Old! Hark upon the &c &c.
4. If you need cheering up after the tour of troubles, go to city hall!

Pretty enough building. What could improve its coolness?

Rows of artistic terra cotta warriors!
He pandance if he wants to.
5. The best way to survive Belfast? Get out of Belfast. You are so close to Giant's causeway, it is a necessary day trip. If you are very lazy, like me, you can find a daytrip bus and feel super tourist for a day. Doing it this way provides a couple benefits, other than avoiding public transportation hassles:

Pirate statue. You get to visit this castle just long enough to snap a photo!

Tiny islands near  Carrick-a-Rede, which is a tiny rope bridge.
You can pay five pounds? For the privilege of walking on a bridge.

Or you can stand around and take pictures.

You can guess which I picked.
Now, to the Causeway!
Giant's Causeway is an important location for many reasons, not the least of which because Hermione teleported herself, Ron, and Harry here for no apparent reason except to provide some very nice scenery in the last movie.

You can walk around on the rocks, slip and fall and get a bruise, because the damps stones are super slick. You can also go hiking up a trail and walk on top of the cliffs. This is a nice hike, but at the top of the cliffs the geographical formations tend to be pretty much like normal cliffs and water, less distinctive than Finn McCool's legacy.

Natural geometric formations!

It's a pattern for a stone soccer ball/football.
Note: the thing I have to apologize most for while traveling:
the American use of he word football.

You haven't seen the last of rocks and water! Oh my no!

Pretty weird formation, right? And big.
Note the genuine rain droplets on the lens!

Cliffs: good for hiking!
Warning: uphill. 

From up here, giant is not the word I would pick.

Anyway, Giant's Causeway is the remnant of Finn McCool's duel with a Scottish giant named Benandonner. The story was explained to me thusly: 

So Ben hears Finn is the most badass of the Irish giants, and he's like cool. So he sends Finn a letter, saying Hey, wanna fight? Build me a causeway so I can come over and kick your ass!

Finn says cool, and builds a bigass causeway to join ireland and scotland, because giant's can't be bothered to take a boat. So Finn sits there and crosses his arms and watches Benandonner strut over from across the channel. As he gets closer, Finn realizes this is bad news bears, and he's like great scot, that is a great big scot. So, being the quickthinking guy Finn is, he gets his wife to wrap him up in swaddling clothes and put him in a crib. (What a baby!)

So when Ben finally gets there, the wife says oh hey, my hubby is out for the moment. Lemme just feed his son, and I'll go get him. So Ben sees this enormous baby, and thinks "Damn. If that's the size of the baby, I don't want to see the dad." So Ben runs back across the causeway, tearing it to pieces, and leaving broken rocks and a whole lot of bizarrely hexagonal footprints. Yay!


Seven things to do in Glasgow

Things to do in Glasgow!

1. Find beautiful night photography!

I would like to tell you I remember what this building is.

Cathedral, from the only angle without
all the scaffolding ever.
2. Put traffic cones on top of statues!

Kidding. The Modern Art Gallery beat you to it.

3. Go to the Botanical Gardens!

Just don't throw stones.

Don't throw stone statues either.

It's like being inside a tropical UFO.
4. Take a trip through time and space!

5. Take more pictures of that Cathedral.

You don't have to look so grave.

The Cathedral building is hollow on the inside.
You can walk in, if you want to.

It also contains a flag from the time when a gator ruled England.

6. Find Victorians in a vintage festival!

I am half convinced they came from the Tardis.

Clearly, not steampunk enough.
7. Learn to Thistle.

Teach me how to thistle,
teach me how to thistle!


Scotland: contains castles

Oh hey there. 

Where did we leave off? Scotland. Edinburgh. Yes. Edinburgh was a great small city in Scotland. But once you've sampled some haggis, history, and whisky, you want more out of Scotland.

Just kidding, except for sheep, that's pretty much all you can find in the country. And one great place to find the history bits is: CASTLES!

On our adventure we sampled several fine castles. They each had a robust bouquet and a stony palate. They also tend to be on hills.
Not a castle. Tower: seen from a castle.
First up, we sampled Stirling castle.

Color scheme: Stirling Silver. Hi ho!
It was, very much, a castle. Even had people dressed up in period costumes. Not many, but some. You push a button and they tell you about the history of the castle. You nod politely and consider gouging out your eyes when you notice the medieval codpieces. Instead you think just how far fashion has come in this day and age, and aggressively admire the castle.

Stirling: kind of a hike. You will regret packing too many siege engines.
But wait, there's more! 
Not only can you find lots of random historical castles in Scotland, you can also find one (well, four in one) of the most important castles from the time of medieval Arthur. 

I'm talking Camelot, the temptation of sir Galahad, outrageous French accents, the works! 

Duane castle: filming grounds for every castle ever in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Awesome? Awesome. Made more awesome by the well-produced Audioguide that is actually narrated by a Python! (Fortunately, it's not in parseltongue.) 

Needless to say, it's a silly place.
Despite the deep cultural significance of the castle, it is not overrun with tourists, so it's a nice break from the hordes.

This castle has seen better days: perhaps it was damaged
via Trojan Rabbit assault.
The staff is friendly, and the audio guide kindly gives you information about the history of the castle, and which rooms were used for what in filming. But really, the staff is thoughtful. They don't want their guests to get tired, so they offer mounts for traversing the castle and ground. Yes, folks, coconuts are available upon request. 

Not pictured: me and friends galloping around the courtyard
with coconuts.
But wait, there's more! 
Scotland also contains ruins! In the middle of nowhere and unattended. This thing was a medieval fort that had a less medieval fort built on top of it:

Not recommended if you are trying to stay out of the rain.
If you want to go up to Loch Ness, you will run into Inverness, a very pretty, very small city.

Pretty! Yeah, it's pretty much just this one bridge.
Small place.
But since you've come all the way to Inverness, you gotta go up and see Loch Ness. One way to do this: visit Urquhart castle. It's a castle that was blown up by its defenders because they knew they were going to lose. Always thereafter, the place has been cursed, and always rains.

Well, I'm just conjecturing about the last bit, but it did rain quite a lot while we were there. So did all of Scotland, come to think of it.

Loch Ness is behind he castle. This is a view from the castle tower:

Rocks and water! My favorite!
Unfortunately, it wasn't deserted. The hordes were coming to attack and lay waste to the castle. AGAIN.

Despite the tourist bait on the boat, Nessie did not bite.
So yeah. Castles. Scotland has them. It also has whisky. We went to Tomatin distillery, and I think I figured out a scene for the next horror story I write. This is the inside of a whisky still thing:

But IRL, it doesn't turn into a horror film, it turns into whisky. And FYI, these Scottish distilleries have been mostly bought up by Japanese companies, because they were tired of Sake.

30 something year old casks? I would tap that.
If you explore the highland, you will find the other Scottish treasure: Highland cows.


So, dear friends, if you ever find yourself on a road trip in Scotland, bring an umbrella or twelve, and a raincoat, or twelve. Because, really. You will find castles and whiskey, but above all: there will be rain.
Scotland: contains rain.


Edinburgh, more like edinburrrrr

Scotland, or, the start of cold. In my travels through England, the weather was a heatwave induced perfect. Wales, mostly perfect. Scotland: I don't think I saw blue in the sky once. And when it rains, it isn't actually all that warm. It's pretty much got that San Francisco summer chill. By which I mean surprise frostbite or a light jacket.

So we decided to check out Edinburgh. Spoiler: there's a castle in the middle of the city! It's really quite hard to avoid. But why would you want to?

Castle rock; party rock.

At night, the castle is lit up with a haunting blue glow. Hope you like ghost castles. I know I do!


Really, you can see the castle from everywhere in the city. Here's another view:

But really it's the frame you should care about.

Really, the important part of that picture is the window frame. Why? I'm glad you asked. This window happens to be the window in The Elephant House, which is a cafe. It's a view that's cited as an inspiration point for the famous literature that was composed in that very cafe. What literature? Oh, I don't know, a little obscure book and second book something to do with a boy wizard.

Elephants: not present in Harry Potter.
The cafe sticks to its elephantine roots, and doesn't make a big deal of it. Except for the bathrooms. They're pretty moving, covered with graffiti of thank you notes from readers to Rowling. And I hear there's something about "wands at the ready" in the men's room by the urinal. I did not investigate.

And just outside of the cafe is a graveyard with a lot of very familiar names.

He Who Should Not be Named.
This gravestone needs to get with the program.
Though the above is currently the most photographed grave in Edinburgh, it is a city with many really remarkable gravestones. There was a massive plague, so the graphic designers of the gravestone age tried to warn graverobbers and necrophiles that to mess with the graves would land you in your own grave right quick.

Plaguing stones:

Or it commemorates a dancing skeleton.
Maggie Dickson?

Or, more simply:

Yo, ho! A Pirate's Death for Me?

But really. Absolutely the most important thing to do in Edinburgh is to go on one of the free walking tours. Our guide knew his shit, and could bring the stories of the city to life. Plague stories, medieval punishment stories, Maggie Dickson the undead celebrity stories, and the history of the castle. It was a three hour stroll of entertainment and history. In a good way.

To keep it relevant, the guide demanded a volunteer when we got to the medieval punishment block. One of my fine traveling companions shoved me forward, so I stumbled up to the punishment octagon to learn the tragic story of my hypothetical medieval life.

I made appropriately sad faces while the guide narrated the medieval justice that would result after my husband died in the military and I was caught stealing bread to feed my three starving children. Without trial or jury, the shopkeepers would have arranged to nail my ear to the punishment octagon, and I would have to stand there for a day without a babysitter, food, water, bathroom breaks, or any food for my starving children. If I couldn't hack it, and tore myself away from the block, I would be marked forever as a thief. There would be shunning, and poor medieval thief would have no recourse but to turn tricks at the docks and face a guaranteed death by syphilis after two years.

Oh dear!
Now all the punishment octagon is used for is royal pronouncements, which are proclaimed exactly three days after the news is released from London. On the bright side, the several-days gap will prevent the town criers from being duped by fake celebrity deaths on Twitter.